Acceleration: A Coat of Many Colours

Wilma Vialle, Tracey Ashton, Greg Carlon and Florence Rankin

University of Wollongong

Abstract

Why does the word 'acceleration' continue to generate controversy? The research literature now makes it abundantly clear that acceleration in its various guises is a positive intervention for many gifted students. Nevertheless, educational practitioners in Australia continue to resist the evidence and campaign actively against allowing students to take up this option. This paper synthesises three research projects conducted in New South Wales , exploring different forms of acceleration. The first project involved an investigation of the Early Entry policy for gifted children in one region of the state; the second reports on a number of case studies of students who have received at least one instance of grade-skipping; and the third, examines a vertical programming system that allows students to accelerate within subjects at a selective high school. Based on these research studies, this paper will explore the issues that are at the centre of the acceleration debate.

Introduction

There are few words that more readily bring forth debate in educational circles than the word 'acceleration'. Much of the controversy surrounding the concept, however, can be linked to urban myths that have little or no support in educational research. Acceleration can take several forms but the urban myth attaches the word's meaning to one form only 'radical acceleration or multiple grade-skipping' and popularised caricatures such as the television character, Doogie Howser, become the focus for much of the scepticism of the value of acceleration as a viable educational option for gifted students. The prevalent attitude is still one of "early ripe, early rot."

Despite the widespread misgivings of educational practitioners, the research literature on acceleration (Benbow, 1992; Gross, 1992; Kulik & Kulik, 1991, 1992; Swiatek, 1993), continually demonstrates positive academic attainments for accelerants. As Benbow (1992) has stated, acceleration is "a program option that is best supported by research findings conducted over a span of 60 years [but] it is still infrequently used and often met with scepticism" (p. 3). Studies conducted in the United States and Australia repeatedly reflect this pattern of support in research but resistance in practice. A recent study in Germany found a similar pattern of negativity towards acceleration practices in that country (Heinbokel, 1997).

In New South Wales (NSW), provision for acceleration at every stage of schooling has been a matter of government policy since 1991 (see NSW Department of School Education, 1991). A comparatively recent survey reported by Bailey (1997), indicated the growing number of cases of acceleration in NSW through early entry, subject acceleration and grade skipping since the release of the policy statement. Nevertheless, the urban myth that mitigates against acceleration in any form as a program option for gifted students still holds sway in many areas of New South Wales. The issue of acceleration continues to elicit among educators the primacy of concerns related to the social and emotional adjustment of students over their academic needs, as described nearly two decades ago by Daurio (1979). This apparent dichotomy in the minds of educational practitioners not only neglects the research evidence cited earlier but also overlooks the reality that a student's social and emotional well-being is inextricably related toˇnot separate fromˇtheir cognitive needs. To separate the social and emotional from the cognitive needs of a student is to ignore current understandings regarding the nature of thinking and learning.

This paper describes three studies on acceleration conducted in the South Coast region of NSW, a particularly conservative area of Australia and one in which egalitarian concerns are markedly rampant. The first project involved an investigation of the NSW Early Entry policy for gifted children; the second reports on a number of case studies of students who have received at least one instance of grade-skipping; and the third examines a vertical programming system that allows students to accelerate within subjects at an academically selective high school.

Attitudes toward Early Entry

Early Entry is the term given to the procedure that allows children aged four years to enter kindergarten rather than at age five which is the norm. The procedure was given government policy approval in 1991 (NSW Department of School Education, 1991). Despite the policy support, teachers and administrators have generally opposed the policy in practice, primarily because of their beliefs that the children were not adequately screened and were too immature to function well (Braggett, 1984). The negative attitudes towards early entry, as indicated earlier, have been largely based on misconceptions and anecdotal evidence rather than empirical data (Butterworth & Constable, 1982). Mares and Byles (1994) indicated that early entry is successful if the school selection procedure is thorough, and the teacher is aware of the needs of gifted children and has a positive attitude to the child's placement.

Although there is no research evidence to support the argument that if gifted children enter school before five, they will suffer serious disadvantage later in their schooling (Butterworth & Constable, 1982), a disproportionately small number of children have been enrolled early in NSW's South Coast regional schools compared to other regions in the state. In order to determine the reasons for the lack of implementation of the policy, a survey was conducted to investigate principals' attitudes towards early entry of gifted four year olds into schools; the questionnaire sought details concerning the screening procedures used, the influence of parents and preschools on selection, program provisions for gifted children, the principal's attitudes to early entry, and impediments to the procedure in the schools. The sample size included a total population of 63 school principals. Twenty seven questionnaires were returned, representing a response rate of 42.85%.

Although far more schools indicated that they offered early entry (25) than not (2), only 10 schools reported that they had received applications for the procedure. Only three of these ten schools had enrolled children --one of which enrolled five children -- while the remaining seven schools had rejected the applications. Of the 15 children who had been screened for early entry, seven were admitted and eight were rejected. It was interesting to note that five out of the seven children enrolled were of non-English-speaking background (NESB) which is in contrast to the evidence that NESB children are much less likely to be nominated as gifted by their teachers (O'Tuel, 1994; Vialle, 1994; Zappia, 1989). However, four of these five children were accepted at one school where the Assistant Principal was completing a doctorate in gifted education. This highlights the impact that training in gifted education can wield on the acceptance of special provisions for gifted students.

A number of reasons was cited for non-enrolment of early entry candidates with an indication that both parents and principals were responsible for making the final decisions. Overwhelmingly, though, the findings of the survey indicated high rejection rates by principals which replicates Whan's (1993) finding of a 98% rejection rate by principals in a metropolitan area of NSW. The most common reason that children were rejected for early entry related to the social and emotional development of the child as encapsulated in this comment from one principal:

The socialisation process and the ability to get along with one's peers is far more valuable to a child's progress than any academically gifted program at this stage of their development.

The surveyed principals also commented that parents wanted their children to "fit in", to progress at normal rates and to avoid the problems of "early exit". A large number of principals stated that the immaturity of the child and their physical size were reasons for non-enrolment. Given other research findings in the field, it was not surprising that lack of academic ability was the least important reason cited for rejection of early entry candidates. Another factor in the low early entry figures for the region was the principals' general lack of familiarity with the policy. Some, however, expressed their particular opposition to the policy:

I must say that I am personally opposed to the concept of early entry. In fact, my experience has been such that I would welcome the opposite approach, i.e. later entry.

The survey concluded that the major factor in preventing young gifted children from entering school early, related to unsubstantiated fears by the region's principals for the social and emotional well-being of the children concerned. It is clear that a great deal of specialist training in the needs of gifted children will need to occur before policies such as the Early Entry policy can be implemented and provide an important avenue for the gifted children it is designed to serve.

The Experiences of Accelerants

The purpose of the second study was to determine the academic and social-emotional effects of acceleration on students who had experienced at least one grade-skip. Intensive case-studies of five accelerants were developed in order to explore their perceptions of the experience of such acceleration. An attempt was made to maximise the differences among the five case-studies so that any features common to the students would be more striking. Therefore, the students ranged in age from six to sixteen years at the time of the study; there were three males and two females in the sample; the students came from different socio-economic backgrounds and one was from a non-English-speaking background. Data were gathered through multiple interviews with the students, their families and their teachers and through school reports and test results.

In order to place the conclusions of this study into perspective, the five case-studies need to be briefly reviewed. Pseudonyms selected by the students themselves are used to protect their confidentiality.

Fatih was 11 years of age and in Year 7 at the local academically selective high school at the time of the study. Of non-English-speaking background, Fatih's giftedness was recognised by his Year 4 teacher who acted as his advocate in having him accelerated from Year 4 to Year 6.

Creichton was also 11 and was attending the local academically selective high school in Year 7 at the time of the study. Creichton's abilities were first noticed by his Year 1 teacher but it was his parents who advocated strongly in order to effect an acceleration from Year 1 to Year 3.

Elijah was 16 years of age and in his second year at university. His parents recognised his giftedness and were his advocates but they were forced to repeatedly battle an intransigent bureaucracy in order to have Elijah's educational needs met. After persistent attempts, this resulted in multiple grade-skips at primary school and then the frustration of his being forced to spend three years in Year 6 because the high school would not accept him before he reached the age of eleven. He accelerated again in high school, completing his Higher School Certificate while simultaneously attending university classes.

Kaylie was 6 years of age and attending Year 1 in a local primary school. Her pre-school teacher recognised her giftedness and recommended that her parents withdraw her from the preschool and apply for early entry into kindergarten. After half a year in kindergarten, she progressed to Year 1. The school recommended that she be further accelerated into Year 3 but the parents have refused that option.

Kate was 9 years of age and was being home-schooled by her mother at the time of the study. She was identified as gifted when she was in Year 2 and was eventually grade-skipped from Year 3 into Year 5. Her mother decided to home-school Kate because of ongoing problems with socialising at school. Kate was then diagnosed with an obsessive compulsive disorder and is receiving psychiatric care for that condition.

These five case-studies reveal some interesting commonalities. Elijah, Creichton and Kate were all identified as gifted because they expressed their boredom and frustration with school-work they found unchallenging. Their feelings were manifested in physical and emotional symptoms. In fact, all five cases reported suffering physical illnesses prior to their accelerationˇand in each case, the symptoms disappeared when they were provided with more challenging work. Elijah, Creichton and Kate have all had their giftedness confirmed through formal testing as their acceleration depended ultimately on the scores they attained in the face of opposition from the schools. Neither Fatih nor Kaylie have undergone such testing because in their cases -- unlike the other three -- the teachers were their advocates for accelerated progression rather than their parents. In the cases of Elijah, Creichton and Kate, the parents acquired and demonstrated far more knowledge about the appropriate educational options for gifted students than the school decision-makers.

In all five cases, the academic needs of the students were not being met prior to acceleration. Following the acceleration, there was some improvement in the level of work offered to them. Nevertheless, there were still several instances when the work again became unchallenging. It is clear that some of these students were candidates for further acceleration. What is also abundantly clear from the case-studies, is that acceleration is a temporary solution to addressing the needs of gifted students; without a differentiated curriculum which challenges the student and a teacher who is knowledgeable about the needs of gifted students, acceleration will not satisfy the gifted student. In such cases, the acceleration becomes a placement decision rather than a program decision. Unfortunately, boredom and frustration are the dominant memories of these accelerants when reflecting on their schooling experiences thus far.

Each of the case-studies reported that they were far happier, socially and emotionally, after their acceleration. They had all demonstrated a tendency to socilaise with older children prior to their acceleration. They also reported a greater feeling of fulfilment and self-confidence as a result of their acceleration. Kate was an exception in that she felt rejected by the class into which she was accelerated but her emotional problems were not any worse after acceleration than they had been beforehand.

In summary, the five case-studies of accelerants support the findings of other research studies in the literature. The experience of acceleration through grade-skipping was seen as a positive one by each of the students, both academically and socially and emotionally. The study also highlights the urgent need for teachers and administrators to familiarise themselves with the needs of gifted students. The parents and teachers who were advocates for these students had to combat prejudice and bureaucracy in order to gain the concession of even a single grade-skip. The students continued to experience some academic frustrations when the curricula they received still failed to meet their unique needs.

Vertical Timetabling

One way in which some high schools are attempting to provide flexibility for gifted students is through a procedure known as vertical timetabling. This procedure allows accelerated progression in specific subject areas for those students whose abilities warrant acceleration. The academically selective high school in the South Coast region of NSW introduced vertical timetabling four years ago. In the second year of its operation (end of 1995), a survey was conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of the procedure for these accelerants. At the time of the study, accelerated progression had been undertaken by 50 students in Years 8, 9 and 10; in each case, the students were studying at one year level higher in the subject discipline. Some students were accelerated in one subject only while others were accelerated in a number of subjects. The survey was completed by 33 students, representing 16 accelerants in Mathematics, 30 in Science, 13 in English, and 1 in Geography and History.

The most significant finding of this survey was that all accelerants, within six to ten weeks of being in the accelerated class, found themselves at the top of the class into which they were accelerated. Consequently, after the "honeymoon period" of the initial introduction to the class, they became dissatisfied with the pace at which the class was moving. There seem to be two explanations for this finding. One relates to the placement of the accelerants; they were frequently placed in a class that contained the less capable students from the year group; therefore, a recommendation from this survey was that accelerants should be placed with the more talented students in the year group so that the pace of work was more appropriate.

The second -- and more intractable -- problem relates to the teaching strategies being used in the classes. The students reported that the teachers often used a teacher-centered approach rather than a problem-based, student-centered approach that they would have preferred. For example, 91% of the students indicated that they preferred to set their own problems to solve while only 33% reported that they were ever given this option. Similarly, 81% of the students indicated that they would like the opportunity to sit pretests to establish what they already know on a topic; and 97% indicated they would like the opportunity to skip content they had already mastered. Again, the frequency with which this occurred was in stark contrast to their stated preference with only 25% of students indicating that such opportunities were afforded them.

The students were asked to comment on the ways in which their accelerated class differed from their regular classes. When asked to make this comparison, the majority of the students were generally positive, commenting particularly that the work in the accelerated class was covered more quickly and was more challenging. Further, many students indicated that they were able to work more independently and at their own pace "without the teacher interrupting". The theme of many responses is encapsulated in one student's comment: "I don't stare out the window so much." Nevertheless, a small number of students indicated that the work was not any different from that in their regular classes.

A small number of students commented on the high expectations placed on them by being in the accelerated class. They felt that there was pressure on them to perform better than others and therefore there was"less feeling of security than in other classes". One of the conditions of being accelerated is that the students maintain an "A average" in the subject. Such expectations can be regarded as positive or negative depending on the personality and self-esteem of the individual students concerned. Many of the students accepted the challenge and worked hard while a small percentage decided to return to their cohort groups.

One force that mitigates against students pursuing the challenge of accelerating in particular subjects is a ruling by the Board of Studies (the body which sets and administers the rules and regulations governing the assessment of high school students) which removes the flexibility that vertical timetabling is trying to effect. The Board requires any accelerating student to sit the Higher School Certificate at the highest possible level. For example, an accelerant in Year 12 is required to attempt 4 Unit Science, 3 Unit English, 4 Unit Mathematics and any other subject at 3 Unit level. This provides the accelerant with very few options for other subjects they may wish to pursue. A number of students commented on the kind of constraints this ruling placed on their studies.

In summary, the Vertical Timetabling approach at this selective high school has enabled accelerated progresssion within some subjects for gifted students. The majority of students were positive about the opportunity that they were receiving. Nevertheless, it is clear that the success of the acceleration was dependent on the ways in which the teachers designed the curriculum for the students. The data from this survey indicate that teachers still need a lot more in-servicing in strategies appropriate for gifted students before the procedure fully meets the needs of those students.

Myths and Realities

The three research projects briefly described above examined three different forms of acceleration: early entry; grade-skipping; and acceleration within subject disciplines. A number of conclusions can be drawn from these studies. The attitudes of the accelerants towards their acceleration were overwhelmingly positive both in terms of their academic needs and their social and emotional needs. Nevertheless, the studies also revealed a reluctance -- and in some cases, antagonism -- regarding acceleration as an educational program option on the part of teachers and administrators. The educators who supported acceleration were those individuals who had received some training in gifted education; those who were most vocal in their opposition admitted to receiving no such training. The fears most often expressed by the latter group of educators related to the social and emotional development of the accelerated students. Such fears were not borne out by the evidence gained from these studies.

The success of acceleration related most strongly to the nature of the curriculum that the accelerants received subsequent to their acceleration. This supports Kulik & Kulik's (1992) conclusion that the key to acceleration is the way in which course content is adjusted to the student's ability. The students in the studies described herein reported high levels of satisfaction, academically and emotionally, when the curriculum was challenging, provided them with options and allowed them a voice in its design and execution. The experiences of many students, however, was that the curriculum often was not differentiated and therefore the acceleration became an administrative option rather than a pedagogically-sound program option. The data from the three research projects echo the conclusions of Gross (1993) in her ongoing longitudinal research into exceptionally gifted children. Gross (1992) indicated that factors influencing the success of acceleration programs could be summarised under the following: program design and planning; enhancement of social self-esteem; provision of an intellectual peer group; and, the reversal of underachievement.

Another factor that emerges from the data is the importance of supportive adults and peers for the emotional well-being of the accelerants. The students commented on the importance of a belief in themselves to their sense of achievement and their happiness at school; they also highlighted the part that some teachers, parents and peers played in helping them accept their own abilities. Parents and teachers acted as advocates in seeking appropriate educational options for them; like-minded peers made them feel less isolated in their academic pursuits. Noble, Robinson & Gunderson (1993) also conclude that adult and peer support is essential for accelerants.

Finally, the study data reveal how important it is that individual differences are considered in the planning and implementation of acceleration practices. Accelerated students need to have their progress monitored and additional curriculum modifications made where necessary. It is clear that some of the accelerants in the second study, for example, would have benefited from further accelerations while one accelerant had particular social needs that were not addressed. The importance of attending to individual differences has also been evident in previous research studies (Charlton, Marolf & Stanley, 1994; Cornell, Callahan & Loyd, 1991).

Conclusion

Acceleration, in all it guises, is a viable educational option for gifted students that is currently under-utilised because of the unfounded fears of many educators. The research studies described in this paper are in accord with the extensive research literature indicating that the procedure enhances the academic and the social-emotional needs of gifted students. Lack of training in gifted education among many teachers and administrators, however, continues to prevent gifted students from enjoying the option of accelerated progression.

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